In which I get Cranky about language

Elseweb, someone said the following in a discussion on language, and because it would not be appropriate for me to make this comment there, as it’s not exactly the topic, I’m going to do it here:
Chaucer was as incomprehensible to [Shakespeare’s contemporaries] as he is to us, but we can still comprehend Shakespeare with a little effort, and the literature since then with correspondingly less effort.
I see this all the time, and it’s basically nonsense.
Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which is pretty weird to our modern eyes, but not actually all that hard to understand. If you learn how to pronounce the vowels, it’s pretty easy to read, and not too hard to understand.  Here’s a version with translations below the original Middle English lines:


1         Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
When April with its sweet-smelling showers
2         The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
3         And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
4         Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By which power the flower is created;
5         Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
6         Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
In every wood and field has breathed life into
7         The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
8         Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
Has run half its course in Aries,

There are some odd words, such as the pronoun hir, which has been replaced with their in modern English, but overall, the general shape of the language isn’t that hard for us to figure out, even 627 years later.  We teach it to 12th graders, for goodness’ sake–it’s not rocket science (though, honestly, we teach that, too, in some classes)!

Shakespeare, by contrast, wrote in Modern English.  Here’s Shakespeare, completely as he wrote the lines:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Perfectly understandable.  Sure, in some of Ol’ Billy’s words there are grammatical constructions that are no longer done, and the pronunciation of words has changed, certainly, leading many of Shakespeare’s jokes to fall flat today if care isn’t taken.  I remember one teacher who told us that the weird construction in the final couplet of Sonnet 116 (above) was an example of an intentional “slant rhyme,” but I later discovered that in Shakespeare’s day, the words “loved” and “proved” would have rhymed perfectly.  Those pronunciation shifts also kill some of the imagery in this sonnet–for example, there’s a pun on “hours” and “oars” in the sonnet above, which links back to the imagery of a ship in line 7.  I’ll concede that understanding just what Shakespeare is saying may not be so easy–for example, this sonnet is often read as a romantic poem, but many scholars argue otherwise. So, sure, hard to analyze–but hard to understand as language, it isn’t.
This idea in our culture that Shakespeare is some kind of bizarre language we can only understand if we work at it is part of why his plays have gone from the everyday, for-all-people entertainments they were in his lifetime to supposed highbrow-only work today.
Every time I see some idiot waxing poetic about Romeo and Juliet being High Art, I want to smack them–fully half the first scene is a series of penis jokes, for crissakes!  And it includes rape jokes!
Anyway, I’ll do another post someday soon about the pronunciation changes, but for now, I just want to say this:  Shakespeare is not hard to understand, and if you have any part in fomenting the myth that it is, stop it.

About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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One Response to In which I get Cranky about language

  1. -catty- says:

    Ha ha ha. This was an argument I used to have with my ex. He didn’t like all the “formal” and “high and mighty” language in Shakespeare. I could not convince him that it was 500 year old street English.

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